A German labor court has upheld the firing of a cashier who stole coupons worth 1.30 euros ($1.67). But long-time supermarket employee's supporters claim the woman was victimized for union activities.
Cashiers need to be particularly trustworthy, the court said
The theft was not a big one. The cashier at a supermarket allegedly pocketed two coupons which had been lost by a customer. The coupons were for a cash credit the store gave out for returning empty bottles. But the stolen 1.30 euros was enough to get the 50-year-old supermarket employee fired.
The appeal judges in Berlin ruled on Tuesday, Feb. 24 that it was within the rights of supermarket chain Kaiser's Tengelmann to fire the cashier without notice. The court said it was proven that Barbara E., whose full name was not made public, had taken and cashed in two empties vouchers.
The Kaiser's attorney Karin Schindler-Abbes said the dispute was not about the money.
"It's about trust," Schindler-Abbes told German television ARD. "A cashier has to be absolutely trustworthy and 100 percent honest. If a cashier puts the trust of his employer at risk through his conduct, he has to reckon with losing his job."
In its ruling, the court said an "irreparable loss of confidence" had resulted through the cashier's behavior. This was a decisive factor in the dismissal, despite the over 30 years E. spent behind the cash register at the store. The amount did not play a role.
"The loss of confidence was in this case even more strong as the claimant consistently made false statements during the employer's questioning, which she then simply dropped when they were refuted by the employer," the court said in a statement. "She, for example, incriminated a colleague who had nothing to do with the matter without reason or justification."
Hundreds of similar cases
The case has seen various solidarity campaigns for E., nicknamed "Emmely." Her supporters, including labor groups, said she was victimized for union activities. In 2007, E. led strikes against the supermarket's new owners for higher pay.
Barbara E. fought back tears following the ruling
But the court said in its ruling that it could not determine a connection between the cashier's participation in strikes and her dismissal. It said there was no evidence of victimization.
Supporters have organized "Solidarity with Emmely" demonstrations, along with an Emmely Web site. They have mounted protests all over Germany, putting Emmely stickers on fruit in the chain's other stores.
Numerous supporters were at the ruling on Tuesday, leading to a heated atmosphere in the courtroom. One of the "Solidarity with Emmely" members told reporters that the interest was so large because this was "a typical case."
"We know from conversations with works councils that there are hundreds of similar cases," he said.
The ruling sparked roars of laughter in the courtroom, with some spectators calling "class justice."
"This is carte blanche for every employer to throw out people who speak their minds," said one viewer.
E.'s attorney Benno Hopmann said the verdict was "a scandal."
"This ruling is a ruling from the employer's point of view," Hopmann said. "My client's perspective completely fell by the wayside."
The big fish get away
The Confederation of German Trade Unions DGB said that while normal employees had to bear the brunt of the law, top managers safeguarded themselves in their contracts against becoming liable for mismanagement or bankruptcy.
The left-wing faction in Berlin's City Parliament said the case was incomprehensible and left "a bitter aftertaste."
"It's infuriating that in times of economic and financial crises, a shortage of 1.30 euros leads to losing a job, while in contrast, billions of losses in companies are sweetened with bonuses for managers," said faction leader Carola Bluhm.
Following Tuesday's ruling, Hopmann said he will submit a complaint of unconstitutionality, even going as far as the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary. E. cannot appeal the ruling.
E., the mother of two children, now draws Hartz IV social benefits. She had begun work at the shop in 1977, when it was an East German food store, and saw it transformed into a western-style supermarket after communism ended.
"I didn't do what I've been accused of," E. said in tears after the ruling.
Author: Sabina Casagrande (dpa/afp/ap)
Editor: Trinity Hartman